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The quarterbacks that ‘broke’ the league

Progress is passing. Passing is progress.

Denver Broncos v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Almost exactly two-thirds of all offensive yards gained in 2020 were passing yards. This was actually down a bit from a high of 69.1 percent in 2015. Back in 1977 more than half of all offensive yards were rushing yards. Also back in 1977, 5.23 percent of all passes were intercepted. The percentage of throws intercepted in 2020 was the lowest that it has ever been - 2.06 percent.

This means that the league as a whole has gotten much much better at passing the ball since the early years after the merger.

Back in 1988 the average team passer rating in the NFL was 72.9. In 2019 the worst team passer rating was 74.7. The worst passing team in 2019 did better than the average NFL team in 1985. You can see this in the graph below - apologies for ONLY going back to 1983.

If you use the trend lines, in 2035 the worst team in the league will be where the average team was in 1985. Additionally the best team in the league in 1997 had a passer rating of 93.6. That was the average in the league in 2020. In a little more than 20 seasons, the average NFL team has reached the level of passing efficiency that the best team had in 1997.

To put that another way, the first time the Broncos won the Super Bowl, the best passing team in the league, the 49ers, is exactly where the average NFL team was last season - 93.6. From a numbers perspective, here are the passing stats from the 1997 49ers:

278 completions, 432 attempts, 64.4% completions, 3143 yards, 20 TDs, 11 INTs

Here is what the average NFL team did in 2020:

367 completions, 563 attempts, 65.2% completions, 3842 yards, 27 TDs, 12 INTs

The closest QB to a passer rating of 93.6 in 2020 was Mitch Trubisky who had a passer rating of 93.5. His passer rating was 20th in the league in 2020 among starting quarterbacks.

There are seven seasons where the best team had a passer rating 30 or more above the league average: 1984, 1987, 1989, 1994, 2004, 2007 and 2011.

It’s informative to look at each year and see what novel innovation or elite player(s) led to the differentiation from the average.


This was the dawn of Dan Marino who took the league by storm with his combination of arm strength, quick release, accuracy and mental processing. This was Dan’s first full season as a starting QB in the league. He had started nine games in 1983 and made the Pro Bowl, but 1984 was the year that this star went supernova. If Marino was given 2.5 seconds to throw, he was going to complete the pass. The only way to keep him from completing a throw was to get quick pressure on him up the middle.

Marino threw a league-record (at the time) 48 TD passes in 1984. He also completed 64.2 percent of his passes at a time when the league average was 56.4 percent and one team (the Rams) completed less than 50 percent (49.2). Additionally, at a time when the average team was allowing 47 sacks, Marino was sacked a total of 13 times in 1984.

Marino would be the first team All-Pro QB in 1983, 1984 and 1985.

Marino’s 48 TD passes were sixteen more than the QB who finished second, Dave Krieg.

The only other QB last century to throw 40 or more TD passes in the regular season was Hall of Famer, Kurt Warner. Although Brett Favre would get close in 1995 and 1996 with 38 and 39.

1987, 1989 and 1994.

1987 was the first year were the Bill Walsh West Coast Offense lapped the field. The 49ers QBs completed 64.3 percent of their throws for 44 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions. In previous seasons they were good, but not the best in the league - although much of that had to do with the aforementioned Dan Marino. In 1987 Dan Marino looked human and Joe Montana drove the Ferrari that was the 49ers offense.

One way you know it was a very different time in the NFL, Jerry Rice made first team All-Pro with 65 catches (mainly because he had 22 receiving TDs). That 22 value stood for twenty years as the NFL record for receiving TDs until another Hall of Famer, Randy Moss, would break it with 23 in 2007.

In 1989 the 49ers would lap the field again. The team would complete 70.2 percent of its passes at a time when league average was 55.8. The second place team (by passer rating - Bengals) had a passer rating of 91.2 while the 49ers had a passer rating of 114.8. The Bengals completed 56.1 percent of their throws in 1989. Like the 1987 team, this 49ers team would have two future Hall of Fame QBs starting games for them with Montana and Steve Young both getting chances to drive the Ferrari.

The biggest innovation that Bill Walsh brought to passing in the NFL was the reliance on short accurate passes that controlled the game by controlling the clock and converting on third down. The West Coast offense is built on YAC, yards after the catch and route concepts that stress defenses horizontally (and not usually vertically). The West coast offense used the short passing game instead of and in lieu of the running game. Tom Rathman (a FB) and Roger Craig (a HB) combined for 122 catches in 1989. That was almost as many as Jerry Rice and John Taylor combined to have (142). Admittedly, Craig and Rathman combined to carry the ball 350 times, so the it’s not as if the 49ers had completely abandoned the run.

In 1994 it was Steve Young driving the Ferrari with Joe Montana having been banished to Missouri (misery?) in 1993. 1994 would be Young’s career year with a passer rating of 112.8. Young completed 70.3 percent of his throws for almost 4000 yards, 35 TDs and only 10 picks. He also ran for almost 300 yards and another seven TDs. 1994 would be the third year of Young’s three year run as first team All-Pro. Young’s completion percentage is still tied for 11th best all-time (minimum number of throws apply).

In terms of completion percentage the only regular season in the top ten that is from last century is Ken Anderson’s 1982 season where he completed 70.6 percent of his throws in the strike-shortened season. Sammy Baugh’s 1945 season was in the top 10 until last year when Aaron Rodgers knocked him out of the top 10. Of course every season since 2016 has seen a QB get a top 10 completion percentage value.

2016 - Sam Bradford 71.6%

2017, 18 and 19 - Drew Brees 72.0%, 74.4% and 74.3%

2020 - Rodgers 70.7% and Brees (again) 70.5%

Derek Carr also hit the top 10 in 2019 at 70.4%

Seven of the top 10 completion percentage seasons have occurred in the last five seasons. but let’s get back to the 49ers.

The 1994 49ers would again lap the field in terms of passing offense with the second best team, Brett Favre’s Packers, coming in at second with a passer rating of 89.1. The average NFL team in 1994 had a passer rating of 78.4. The 49ers had a passer rating of 111.4.

For perspective, John Elway would make the Pro Bowl in 1994 by completing 62.1 percent of his throws for 16 TDs and 10 picks (passer rating of 85.7). He would also run for 235 yards and another four TDs. Elway would also take a league-high 46 sacks in 1994 in only 14 starts. Hugh Millen would start the other two games for the Broncos (both losses).


The was the first year that Peyton Manning lapped the field, although the Vikings would also have a really good passing offense in 2004. The Colts (Manning) would finish the regular season with a then-record passer rating of 119.7. League average that season was 82.8. Manning would throw a league-record 49 TD passes (Colts would have 51 - two from Jim Sorgi). At the same time Daunte Culpepper would have a career year throwing 39 TDs and only 11 picks with 4717 passing yards. Interestingly, none of his receivers made the Pro Bowl, not even future Hall of Famer, Moss. Moss only caught 49 passes (with 13 for TDs) in 2004. The success of the 2004 and 2005 Vikings offense would land offensive coordinator Scott Linehan his only head coaching gig with the Rams in 2006.

Back to Manning - Peyton would take the blue print that had been drawn up by Dan Marino and perfect it. His ability to process what had happened, what was happening and what was going to happen in the game was like no one before him and probably will never be equaled. Manning didn’t have the lightning-fast release of Dan Marino, but he made up for it with his lightning-fast brain. By the same token there were probably twenty QBs (or more) in the league every year with stronger arms than Peyton, but it didn’t matter. Manning knew what the defense was going to do before the defense knew what they were going to do.

Like with Marino, the only way to stop Peyton was to either keep him off the field or pressure him quickly up the middle. Manning made a career out of getting the ball out quickly to the right receiver before the pressure got to him. While he was never nimble-of-foot, he could move in the pocket just enough to give himself the extra bit of time he needed to get the throw off. Like Marino before him, Manning was extremely difficult to sack (leading the league five times in lowest sack rate) and that was even with him self-sacks later in his career.

2004 would be Manning’s career year in terms of passer rating and his 121.1 passer rating is still the third best ever in NFL history. Only Aaron Rodgers (twice) has topped it (in 2011 and 2020). Manning’s 49 TD passes with only 10 picks was astounding in 2004 but five QBs were close to it in 2020. In 2020 Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen all threw 37 or more TD passes with 13 or fewer interceptions.

To put it in greater contrast, in 2006 Manning again led the league in passer rating with a value of 101.0. He was the only QB over 100 that season. (The league changed the rules to make it easier to pass the ball after this year). In 2020 ten quarterbacks had a passer rating better than Manning’s league leading passer rating in 2006. In addition to the five already named we also had Ryan Tannehill, Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson, Kirk Cousins and Derek Carr.

People tend to forget that Manning didn’t really “solve the league” until 2003. 2003 was the first of his seven appearances as the first team All-Pro QB, but in 2003 there were three teams that all were pretty comparable in terms of passing offense: the Titans, the Colts, and the Vikings. All three had passer ratings of 99-100. So while Manning and the Colts passing offense were elite in 2003, they were not differentiated from Culpepper and the Vikings offense or Steve McNair and the Titans offense.


This was the height of the Josh McDaniels-Tom Brady offense in New England. Brady would throw for a then-record 50 TD passes with only eight picks. The Patriots would lap the field this season. The second place passing team, Pittsburgh, would finish with a passer rating of 99.9 compared to the 116.0 of the Patriots (Brady had a 117.2 - Matt Cassel would throw seven passes and one pick to drag the team average down).

Josh McDaniels may have been a terrible head coach, but he worked magic with Brady and Moss this season on the way to the first ever (and only ever) 16-0 regular season finish. Interestingly enough, the only two offensive players to make the Pro Bowl from the Patriots in 2007 were Brady and Moss. Patriot fans would say that Wes Welker got snubbed (112 catches for 1175 yards and 8 TDs).

It’s almost like the Patriots offense had cheat codes for the game...

...but I’m not going there.


The was the first year that Aaron Rodgers put the league on notice. Rodgers passer rating of 122.5 still stands as the best ever single season mark in NFL history. Because of Matt Flynn’s great game in the final week of the regular season, the Packers would finish with a team record passer rating of 122.6. Flynn would throw for 480 yards and six touchdowns in week 17 against the Lions (who were good in 2011 - finishing 10-6 in the regular season and losing in the wildcard game to the Saints).

Rodgers insane 45 passing touchdowns with 6 interceptions is still one of the best combinations ever (+39) in terms of TDs minus interceptions. Only Brady’s +42 from 2007 and Manning’s +45 from 2013 were better until Rodgers one-upped himself with a +43 in 2020. While Manning’s +45 seems otherworldly, I expect that record to fall in the next few years when some QB throws something like 60 TDs with 13 interceptions in seventeen regular season games. It would surprise absolutely no one if that QB were Mahomes (don’t you just love the subjunctive mood?).


What single-season regular season passing record do you expect to fall first?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Lowest interception percentage (min 300 throws) - 0.34% Rodgers 2018
    (31 votes)
  • 25%
    Most passing TDs - 55 Manning 2013
    (152 votes)
  • 51%
    Most passing yards - 5477 Manning 2013
    (313 votes)
  • 5%
    Passer rating - 122.5 Rodgers 2011
    (36 votes)
  • 11%
    Completion percentage - 74.4% Brees 2018
    (72 votes)
604 votes total Vote Now